Following my recent sabbatical and the opportunity to connect deeply with folks I love and folks who love me, I’m reminded that faith is a group effort. Someone helped us get it, and many folks help us keep it.
I remember a challenging period in college more than 25 years ago. I was in near constant contact with my mom who informed me during a phone call that my grandma was praying for me. Grandma Hilda could pray down the walls of Jericho. Knowing she was on my case gave me peace and courage. Hilda Milledge, born in 1904, married at fourteen and had her last of 10 children in her middle 40s. She and my grandpa were sharecroppers who eventually owned their own home – no small feat for the children of slaves. And she could pray down the walls of Jericho… We all need someone in our lives who will pray us into peace and courage.
From the beginning of time, I believe faith has been about a community who shares all of what they have in common. What we have is more than money and material possessions. We share joys and heartbreaks, accomplishments and failures. When the old folks said, “God never gives us more than we can bear,” I think the “us” they meant was a community of people helping one another to make it through – holding faith for those who couldn’t hold it for themselves, remembering God’s grace for those who found it unbelievable, propping one another up on every leaning side. Africans survived slavery because of the faith of their community. Because of them, we remember and we believe.
Sadly, we individualize our faith journey. We think it belongs to us personally. We convince ourselves that hardships are ours to bear silently and alone. We get proud of our service and of the length of our prayers. We give more import to our personal piety while neglecting the care of our human community. We have forgotten that our faith is bigger than us and what we can bear or accomplish alone. And for Christians, regardless of color, the gift of Black history is a calling back to faith made powerful in community. It is a hard won inheritance borne out of African blood spilled on American soil, and it benefits us all if we allow it to. It is a gift that, should we receive it, enriches our understanding of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation.
Our faith depends on the waves of prayer and love coming at us from other people. There was the elder in an Oakland, CA church I served who often said, “I’m praying for you, pastor.” There are my sister-friends and professor-mentors with their steady encouragement. Here in NYC it is the shop owners and the self-identified atheists who donate to the church’s feeding ministry just because they see us trying to keep hungry people fed.
Someone helped us get our faith and many folks help us keep it. Children of God are not alone. People surround us and lovingly push us to be more courageous, more compassionate, more Christ-like. We can draw upon their radiance when we cannot bear another minute of our topsy-turvy existence. Like the great cloud of witnesses, our community keeps us company. They help us keep our faith.
And we inhale the same air as the people we admire – one that I have studied and written a small amount on is Ida B. Wells-Barnett who worked tirelessly in the anti-lynching campaign here in the U.S. Where did an African-American woman, born a slave, find the audacity in the America of the 1920s to speak out against lynching?!! I’m convinced she had a Grandma Hilda praying down the walls of Jericho.
The well-known and lesser-known people we celebrate during Black history month and throughout the year, make my faith bigger, stronger and grander. I pray you will find a bigger, stronger, grander faith in the Black history that is accurately American history and that you will know the God and the community who will never leave you to hold your faith alone.
You are loved.